22 Dec 2015

Rip It Up review: Complaint over n-word not upheld

1:52 pm on 22 December 2015

Dope. Photo: Facebook

A complaint against music magazine Rip it Up for their use of the n-word in a movie review has not been upheld by the New Zealand Press Council.

The four-star review of ‘Dope’ caused a storm of online outrage for using the word five times in comments about black American pop culture.

Editor Andrew Johnstone described the film as a "feel good movie about black kids who are not stereotypes". He also asked the question: “what is a n*****?”

Now the Press Council has weighed in after a complaint from journalist Angela Mabey, who said the word was offensive and inappropriate “no matter how it relates to the movie”.

In a ruling released yesterday, the council said the Rip it Up editor used the word to reflect his “delight in hearing it used for a confident, self-affirming purpose” and while there was a risk of offending people, it didn’t warrant the total banning of the word.

While the council described the n-word as so offensive that references to it in media are often censored, it also said in this case the word has been used in a new and positive cultural context

Drama series The Wire was used as a reference by the council, who said the show “portrayed black Americans referring to each other as ‘n*****’, both sympathetically and aggressively.”

The council also compared the gay community’s use of the word “queer”, but noted that word was used “strictly among themselves”. 

“It is one thing for victims of discrimination to adopt these terms in order to draw their sting, as it were. It is another thing entirely for others to refer to them with a word that remains deeply offensive to them when used any other way,” the council’s ruling said.

The review has since been removed from the magazine's website.

Responding to the backlash at the time, Rip It Up’s then-publisher Grant Hislop said the review hadn’t been through the magazine’s usual editing process and defended the editor as “an avid promoter of equality in all areas of our community”.

Mabey originally wrote a complaint to Hislop about the review as well as his response following the backlash, calling it “inadequate and flippant”.

She received no reply and sent her complaint to the Press Council.

The council stated that it did not agree with Mabey’s view of the magazine’s response. “It seemed to be an honest admission that the review was written in a flush of enthusiasm for the film and was published too quickly,” it’s ruling said.

Two members of the nine member council disagreed with the decision and would have upheld the complaint since the word remains hugely offensive and its use was not justified in that context or manner.

The Press Council, an independent forum for resolving complaints involving the press and other news media, said it had received no response from the editor or the publisher.

UPDATE: Former Rip It Up editor Andrew Johnstone responds to the backlash over his use of the n-word.

The review of the film Dope, with its repeated use of the n-word, was intended to provoke interest, says Johnstone.

“I knew it was going to be contentious and even more so because I replaced the jovial colloquial N***a with the root word N****r just to remind people of the words historical usage,” he says.

Johnstone says he felt confident that he’d “gotten it right” after reading other reviews of the film in “Black American media” who also used the word freely.

He posted the review several times on the Rip It Up Facebook page before anyone seemed to take notice but when they did, “all hell broke loose,” he says.   

“Both my family and I came under concerted attack via any number of avenues, unsettling for them to say the least. Threats of violence and so forth and yes, people did say 'You are more evil than Hitler,' a rather perplexing accusation.”

While the magazine’s former publisher Grant Hislop defended his work at the time, Johnstone says he eventually lost that support and wasn’t able to publish his reply to the criticism targeted at him. 

“Social propriety is clear, white people have lost the right to use the word, though they are allowed to refer to it as the ‘N’ word, a polite referencing tool that I decided to avoid.”

Despite the aftermath of the review, Johnstone says he decided to leave Rip It Up because he was “mentally exhausted” after months of trying to keep the publication afloat.